By Walt Mossberg. Updated November 16, 2016.
Apple is realigning its familiar laptop line, dramatically reshaping and in some ways merging the favorite options for both heavy-duty "pro" users and everyday customers. And the poster child for this more muddled future is the pricey new MacBook Pro, which appears in stores this week.
Apple wants you to focus on the new Pro's boldest feature, called the Touch Bar. It's a touch-operated strip of buttons and sliders displayed on a thin screen at the top of the keyboard that changes functions depending on what you're doing. It injects a bit of iPhone and iPad feel into the Mac. And it's well worth noting.
But, the bigger story here to me is that the Pro, once mainly aimed straight at people who do especially taxing work like professional video editing or serious design, is now being stretched to suit a much larger audience. That's especially true of the 13-inch model (there's also a 15-inch variety). It's thinner and lighter, and is the only modern, easily portable Mac laptop with both a high-res Retina display and a relatively recent, first-class processor (the sixth generation Core i5 or i7).
So, I've been testing the 13-inch Touch Bar-equipped Pro for about 10 days, looking at it from the point of view of mainstream users, not pros.
Mainstream Mac lovers must assess whether the Pro, now much thinner and lighter, is a good replacement for the brilliant MacBook Air, which Apple will still sell (starting at $999) but which has apparently been consigned to Cupertino's special purgatory for products it can't quite kill yet, but won't upgrade.
The Air was the best laptop ever built, in my opinion, but it was never given a high-res Retina display and has fallen behind in processor technology. And Apple's other Mac laptop, the much newer 12-inch MacBook, while beautiful and portable, has a weak processor, a small screen, a single port and a high base price of $1,299.
The new Pro definitely trounces my three-year-old MacBook Air in power and screen quality. Running the normal set of apps and browser tabs I use every day, my old Air blasts its fans a lot to keep up. The Touch Bar Pro barely notices.
But, I have reservations, and you should too. Many pro users are already vocally complaining about issues particular to them. But, even for mainstream Mac users, there are questions about price, ports, the Touch Bar feature, the keyboard and - surprisingly, for a Mac - battery life.
This new 13-inch Pro comes in two flavors. One, the base model, costs less (it starts at $1,499) but lacks the Touch Bar and Touch ID, the fingerprint-scanner which can be used to log in to the computer and to make online purchases. Instead, it has a standard, but severely squished, row of function keys. The 13-inch Touch Bar model starts at $1,799 but can be configured to more robust specs that bring it to $2,899. The 15-inch model, which isn't the focus of this review, starts at $2,399.
A big part of what makes the Pro double as a successor to the Air is that it has been made much thinner and lighter, even at the cost of enraging some pros, whose favorite ports may have been ditched because they took up too much room. The new 13-inch Pro is now 12 percent thinner than the Air, and weighs the same three pounds. It's as if Apple had shrunk the 13-inch Air, kept the same screen size, added Retina, upgraded the processor and added the Touch Bar and Touch ID.
The screen is just fabulous, even better than the previous 13-inch Pro's Retina display. And way better than the display on the Air.
The keyboard isn't anything like the old Air's or Pro's. It's a revised version of the flat, limited-travel keyboard introduced on the MacBook. I hated the first one on the smaller computer, yet I like this second generation just fine. For me, it took no time at all to get used to. It's clicky and responsive. I suspect you'll like it. But keyboards are a personal thing, so I urge you to try it in a store before ordering.
The biggest surprise in my tests was just how inconsistent the Touch Bar Pro's battery life was. I have tested hundreds of laptops over the years and Macs have almost always excelled at meeting or beating their promised battery lives, both in my longtime battery test regime and in typical daily use. But the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar wasn't as reliably consistent as previous Macs.
On my rigorous test, which I've used for years, the machine actually exceeded Apple's claim of up to 10 hours of battery life. The test involves setting the screen at 100 percent, keeping it on and undimmed constantly, playing an endless loop of music, and leaving Wi-Fi on to collect email, tweets and Facebook posts in the background. Result: 11 hours and 38 minutes.
Normally, that battery test is an understatement, because people typically do let the screen go dark periodically and they don't use it at 100 percent brightness. But, in this case, after hearing that a colleague was seeing much lower results in general use, I ran a second test with all of Apple's default energy-saving settings on, the screen at 75 percent and a perfectly normal (for me) mix of tasks like web browsing, email, a few short videos, Twitter, Facebook, some light writing and Slack. The Pro died at eight hours and 22 minutes.
To make things worse, Apple's built-in prediction of how much time the battery had left before dying fluctuated a lot and was mostly wrong (Apple says this is a known problem caused by the fact that modern processors can power up and down rapidly over a much wider range than in the past, making estimates much more difficult).
So, my best advice is that even a mainstream, non-pro user can't count on this laptop lasting the promised maximum of 10 hours - even in light to moderate use - let alone the 12-hour maximum a new Air can pull off. And you won't have an accurate estimate to go by.
The Touch Bar
The big innovation Apple touts for the new Pro is the Touch Bar. Some regard it as Apple's lame substitute for the full touchscreen it refuses to install in the Mac. But I see it as an effort to replace the keyboard's ancient function row with a bit of the touchscreen simplicity that's the magic behind iOS. (The function keys, like brightness and volume, are still there, in virtual form, but they temporarily contract when an app displays its customized keys and sliders.)
And, yes, there's still an Escape key, but it's virtual.
For pros, the Touch Bar holds promise as a quick way to scroll through photos, or audio wave forms, or video frames, or color choices. The trouble is that, right now, I don't think it does much for mainstream users.
For instance, in Safari and Photos, it presents thumbnails of open tabs and photos that are so tiny you can barely recognize them. You mainly just scroll through them.
In Safari, a Touch Bar button allows you to quickly open a new tab. Another starts a search. In Mail, you can do things like start a new message, reply to one, or trash one. None of this is very exciting or creative, especially since you have a gigantic, buttery-smooth Trackpad below the keyboard. You can't even use the Touch Bar in Apple Mail to move to the next unread message or jump back to the top of a list.
The single most useful feature of the Touch Bar, in my view, is that it provides a home for predictive text selections and emojis when you are writing in almost any app or web page that permits text entry. This includes Apple's word processors, Microsoft Office (coming), Facebook, Messages and more. It's kind of like a wedding of iPhone and Mac text entry, and I like it. (If you don't, you can ignore it.)
Alas, although I wrote this whole column on a MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, I couldn't use this predictive text feature because I was writing in Google Docs running in a Safari tab. That's right: While text entry in any number of web pages works with the Touch Bar, it fails with one of the world's most widely used web apps.
An Apple official said, "Google Docs uses a different model of text entry from the standard text entry used by most websites. This affects the functionality of Touch Bar features. We are working with Google to support these features."
I don't think the Touch Bar is a gimmick, but I don't think it changes much, at least yet, for everyday Mac users. Luckily, third party app developers can design ways to use it, and users can customize it to some extent. So it may have a more productive future. But, right now, it's unlikely to improve most users' lives dramatically when working on their laptops.
The new MacBook Pros dispense with traditional SD card, USB and long-standard video connectors. Even the genius, breakaway MagSafe power connector is gone. In their place are simply four of the new USB-C ports, which also work with Thunderbolt 3. These connectors are fast and highly versatile. They can be used for charging, data transfer, video output and more. And they are likely the future.
But you'll need to buy dongles (adapters) to connect them to most monitors, external storage and flash memory cards.
I fully understand the outrage over this switch from people who make their living on current MacBook Pros and legacy peripherals, like monitors or external storage, and from photographers and editors who rely on flash memory cards. Nobody likes dongles or adapters, and some brands are unreliable or unsafe. Apple slashed its adapter prices temporarily in the wake of the complaints.
But I honestly don't think this is a big problem for average Mac users, whose main need will likely be a new Mac-to-iPhone cable ($19 from Apple). And I believe that, over time, most peripherals will switch to USB-C, since other companies - not just Apple - are behind it.
For everyday Mac users especially, the new Pro is a costly machine. Even the non-Touch Bar model is $500 more than the Air (at $999) and the cheapest Touch Bar edition is $300 more than that. But Apple has always been a premium PC maker, and its new models have often started off at sky-high prices. People forget that, when it debuted in 2008, the MacBook Air with the then-revolutionary, but puny, 64 gigabyte solid-state drive cost a breathtaking $3,100. You can get a terabyte of solid-state storage in the costliest 13-inch new model, and pay less.
If you're a mainstream Mac lover who isn't bothered by its limitations, you can save money with the 12-inch MacBook, or even buy a new Air, if it works well for you. Or, if those MacBook Pro prices are too high for you and your current Mac is doing okay, you could wait for them to come down next year.
The new 13-inch MacBooks - even the base model without the Touch Bar - are costly. And they may make pro users unhappy. But, for everyday Mac lovers - users of the Air or maybe the older low-end Pro - they are now your only thin, modern option with a full-fledged processor. The Touch Bar has potential, but it's not magic. The battery isn't likely to deliver on Apple's claims. You can't count on liking the keyboard. But, if you're a Mac devotee ready to move past the Air - not back to a lower-powered MacBook - this is what Apple is offering. Take it or leave it.